On the shores of Singapore’s Marina Bay sits the Gardens by the Bay, a combination of indoor and outdoor public gardens. Its two giant iconic glasshouses meld seamlessly with the 21st Century skyline of the neighboring Marina Sands Resort and Singapore Flyer observation wheel. With this 2014 Thea Award recipient for Outstanding Achievement – Botanical Garden, Singapore has developed a unique and modern way for showcasing the natural world. InPark’s Joe Kleiman spoke with the Gardens’ CEO, Dr. Kiat Tan.
Singapore has a strong history with public parks, preserves, and botanical gardens. What role does this project serve within the National Parks System?
Well, I was Commissioner of Parks with the Parks and Recreation Department and formed the National Parks Board as a statutory board. Subsequently, we merged with the parent body to form the current National Parks Board. Gardens by the Bay was a project that was developed by the National Parks Board. When it took off, I decided that it should be formed as a corporation for management purposes because we needed the flexibility and the autonomy. In the government system, the process is much delayed. So for this entity, we needed that flexibility. So it was developed by the National Parks Board, but it is its own operating entity.
Was there an architectural requirement to compliment the neighboring Marina Sands?
That was the happiest coincidence because they went their own way with their architect and we did with ours. And the architectural firm responsible for our project responded directly to our needs – the shape and the whole image that is out there – and it seemed to work very well with our neighbors. It was all coincidence. But I was very happy that the scale was right.
What botanical gardens or arboretums influenced the project?
The Singapore Botanical Gardens is a historical entity for Singapore, older than the nation, really. It was becoming swamped as a tourist attraction. It needed to be complimented with a more horticulturally-themed garden. This is why the Gardens by the Bay concept was developed. Shall we say in the USA, you can compare the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St Louis versus with Longwood Gardens [in Kennett Square, PA], which is a show garden. So, in Singapore, we have the Singapore Botanical Gardens and now we have the Gardens by the Bay, which is our version of the Longwood Gardens.
A number of plants seem to come from Mediterranean climates. Why were these chosen?
The Gardens are in the tropics, so our external gardens are typically what would be in glasshouses in temperate zones. We are doing the reverse. The two domes are designed so one has high humidity and the other one has lower. So with the lower humidity, the climate conditions inside tends to correspond with the more Mediterranean type. It allows us to have a potential Spring effect.
You also have a recent addition of a cactus garden?
Indeed. Because we are right on the equator, we get so much rain, we never get cacti. We built a glass roof and planted cacti underneath it. They are growing very well. For them, it’s dry and it’s hot.
Were Singapore’s varied cultures taken into consideration when planning the Gardens?
This is one of our strengths, so very much so. This is part of our social and national goals for the Gardens. We have various propositions – one of which is educational, to inculcate in our young the values for living in a multicultural society with tolerance. We have these various multiracial groups and I think this is what makes Singapore unique and actually much better.
How did the concept for the “supertrees” come about?
Actually, it’s very functional. We needed chimneys because we generate our energy for cooling. We burn wood waste. So, smoke had to be vented. How to disguise these chimneys was to turn them into these very elaborate “supertrees.” They are actually concrete towers clad in a filigree of painted stainless steel. And we have cloaked them in a living mantle of plants. That became vertical gardens, and they rise all the way up to 130 feet.
With it being a key component of the Gardens, was education of school groups integrated into the design from the start?
Indeed, and in fact it was very much part of our initial brief. We are developing a garden to capture the interest of children and divert them from the very seductive iPads, iPhones, and so forth, to show them that the natural world is just as intriguing. We developed the Gardens for people who don’t normally come to gardens. That means that we had to do a great job with interpretation.
How are multimedia displays integrated with live displays?
We integrated the iPad into the educational process. They point it at a sign and more information comes up about what they’re looking out. We also have a lot of interactive panels for the kids to show them the effects of human development and how it can cause damage to nature and what we can do about it. Inside the Cloud Forest, the heart of the mountain is actually a multimedia screen that shows them the effect of our climate warming. We increase the temperatures by five degrees Centigrade. It’s amazing how it captivates the groups that go through. 10% of Singapore’s school kids go through the Gardens every year and we have special programs developed with the Education Ministry for these school groups. It’s becoming part of the curriculum.
How has Singapore resident attendance compared to international visitation?
Of course there was so much pent up curiosity for the Gardens when we first opened, that it was overwhelmingly Singaporean at that time. We hadn’t started advertising the Gardens overseas. I think we have reached, after nearly two years of operation, some state of equilibrium. For the external gardens, we see about 60% Singaporeans and 40% foreign visitors. For the glasshouses, which require a paid admission, it’s the reverse. We are very well connected and integrated with the rest of Singapore. The Sands has a great advantage because now they are charging a premium rate for rooms that view the Gardens. There is a rail station between the Sands and the Gardens and it’s a great way for getting the people here.
How successful is the Garden’s event rental business?
The external gardens are free of charge, so we do have events and rent out our space to recoup some of our current costs.
Are others looking at the Gardens as an example of how to create botanical attractions?
Indeed. We have had a number of requests for consultancies for different countries, primarily from China, the Middle East, and so forth. We had to stress that for a different zone, you must have a completely different set of criteria. We are in the land of perpetual Summer. Our building glasshouses had different technical requirements that would not be faced in, say, Morrocco or even in Japan. But we have been getting a lot of inquiries for help.
What are the targeted age groups and demographics for the gardens?
We have focused the Gardens for the use of the Singapore family. It cuts across the demographics of grandparents to grandchildren. We have just cemented that with having a children’s play garden with water play features and that was great, for now the children drag their parents to the Gardens.
To what degree was energy efficiency integrated into the design?
From the start, we knew that our construction costs would be high because we wanted to develop our own energy generation systems. In developing the pipes and the ovens and so forth, the heating and cooling units, it has allowed us to keep our running cost constant and manageable and it has lowered the cost of cooling very significantly per cubic meter.
Are live insects utilized in the gardens for propagation and pest control?
Our glasshouses are open from 9 to 9, and we may close them one day a month. We are constantly inundated with people. We cannot deploy pesticides. So we are now looking into how we can exercise bilogical controls. We are still in our infancy, because we are only a year and a half into operating, but we see significant advantages to that.
What kind of message do the gardens give about Singapore to the rest of the world?
Singapore is very well known for its fiscal abilities, its management abilities, its very pragmatic nature. But it also shows that, as a global city, we also value the aesthetics and the quality of life and recreation spaces, such as the ones our parks and our gardens provide. So, we are also not adverse to putting in the resources to benefit our people by having cutting edge recreational facilities. This is what the Gardens by the Bay represent.
The cloud forest features a 35m high mountain highlighting species of plants that live up to 2000m above sea level. What kind of issues were faced in acclimatizing these high altitude plants?
The key difference is that temperature is cooled. It’s cool in the day and cooler in the evening, and we have maintained a very high humidity, which is the kind of environment that you find in cloud forests in the tropics. The range of plants, actually, are the kind that we find developed from cloud forest plants – orchids, ferns, begonias, what you will.
How often are the displays changed around in the flower garden?
There are about eight changes per year. Since this is what draws our return visits for our locals, our residents, this is very key. We also want to keep our image very fresh. And we are doing it because of that. We then tack on the floral productions of the different countries that we go to. We just obtained a large number of tulip bulbs for our next “Tulipmania.” This has proven so successful the first time around, that there are other horticultural groups that are just as showy that we want to showcase in some of our changes. We change mainly seasonly, mainly with what is available, and sometimes creatively. We like to display what are commonly familiar flowers in unusual ways.
Dining venues are an important part of the project. How were they designed to compliment the rest of the Gardens?
Dining is very close to the hearts of all Singaporeans. They are contracted out because it’s not our core business, but what we do maintain is in the concept. We have two dining places in the Flower Dome – a high end Mediterranean type and the other, of course, is Chinese seafood. We have a mid-range of food courts and then we have a lower end Satay by the Bay – something for all purse strings. The dining locations blend in with the rest of the Gardens and they have enabled visits to the Gardens to be longer.
What development plans are in the works for the Bay East Garden?
We have two more gardens to go. One is a linear promenade waterfront garden linking the other two. And across from Bay South is Bay East, it’s about a 30 hectare garden. We hope to theme around ethnobotany – what plants are used economically and culturally. There will be no glasshouses, so it will primarily be tropical herbs and spices and food crops.
Are there any other concepts under development for expansion?
Bay South itself is not complete yet, because we’re hoping to have a permanent performance stage. We’ve been having concerts with up to 20,000 people at a time and we’ve been attracting international groups like Jennifer Lopez and Jason Mraz, and so forth. So, we’d like to build a permanent venue for such, and that will be incorporated into the Gardens.